Westinghouse officials said Thursday they expect to submit paperwork this week confirming completion of improvements mandated by federal regulators after a buildup of uranium was discovered in May at their nuclear plant just southeast of Columbia.
A portion of the Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel plant has been closed since the buildup was verified in July. The closing resulted in 170 employees being temporarily put out of work.
After a Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigation and a separate Westinghouse investigation uncovered multiple procedural and management problems at the plant, the company made several changes, officials said. The problems included an inadequate safety culture regarding nuclear material, the company said.
One change involved appointing a new top manager — Mike Annacone — who will serve as vice president of Columbia recovery. The company is also completing a safety evaluation, which must be approved by the NRC. The series of changes must approved by the NRC and a Westinghouse review board set up after the incident.
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If those approvals come through, Westinghouse could petition the NRC for permission to restart the closed section of the plant.
Jim Little, chairman of the South Carolina Nuclear Advisory Council, which met with Westinghouse on Thursday, said the company has done a very thorough job since the incident.
“I feel pretty confident based on what I heard, in terms of what they are addressing right now,” Little said. “I think the restart is going to be imminent.”
Westinghouse officials have completed plant modifications and are meeting with the company’s internal review board, Little noted, adding he thought the plant could resume fuel fabrication operations in two weeks.
The changes were made after Westinghouse discovered 192 pounds of uranium lodged in materials associated with an air scrubber, said Michele DeWitt, Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel interim senior vice president.
Buildups of atomic material are of concern because they can lead to nuclear accidents, although that did not occur in this case.
“Through a combination of several failed barriers, and at least in one case an error in calculations and some missed assumptions, we ended up in a situation where there was a higher level of uranium being trapped in (a) scrubber than we had certainly expected, and/or discovered or had known prior,” DeWitt told the council.
“It was a serious event,” she said, “but the event itself did not cause any impact to public safety.”
NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said it would be “premature” to estimate when the plant would restart. “At this point, we are satisfied with the progress they are making in addressing the issues and our inspection report will be issued next week at the earliest,” Hannah said.
Tom Clements, director of Savannah River Site Watch, a nuclear watchdog group, attended Thursday’s meeting and a large public meeting on the company’s problems two weeks ago.
“It appears Westinghouse has done a pretty thorough job to address the management and operational problems, but I think they are a long ways from being able to restore confidence in how this facility conducts its operations,” Clements said.
“It’s really stunning how deep the problems were, both on the oversight side and the chemical side. So, even if they restart fairly soon, they are going to have a long ways to go to demonstrate they have their problems under control.”
Roddie Burris: 803-771-8398